Kawhi Leonard didn’t need the NBA championship or even the Most Valuable Player honors to validate his place in the game, already in possession of both from his days in San Antonio. But the NBA Finals still served as a coming-out party for the mild-mannered Raptors standout.
And what it mostly put on display was his balanced skill set and his ability to focus on that task while completely obscuring the sideshow that could have surrounded his impending free agency.
Leonard can make an argument as the best two-way player in the NBA, but he managed to make his way through the daily media sessions and all of the hype of the event without providing a hint of his intentions this summer.
While the Knicks have made it clear that they will make an aggressive push at Leonard — a notion that certainly takes on a different level of desire with Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles — there has been none of the hints that Durant would leave and have dissected regarding his own free agency.
The streets of Toronto are lined with signs that include a drawing of Leonard’s face with the slogan, “Kawine and Dine,” and a promise that Leonard can eat free there if he stays in Toronto. If he signs a max contract with the Raptors he certainly will be able to afford the niceties being offered as freebies to him, but the message of affection is clear.
Toronto was not on his preferred list of destinations last summer when he pushed for a trade from San Antonio and his arrival, for all his talent, came with risk as the Raptors sent away their own star and favorite son, DeMar DeRozan in the deal for the one season remaining on Leonard’s contract.
But in DeRozan, they hope they saw an example of what could be. DeRozan was thought to be bound for Los Angeles when he was a free agent, returning to the place that he grew up. But he fell in love with Toronto and opted to stay put — until the trade. Now there have been rumors since the trade that Leonard would choose to head to Southern California this summer.
“We all know where my destinations were,” Leonard said. “But obviously like I said when I was there on my opening day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that's all I did. I'm still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on.
“And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset, let's go out and win ballgames. I texted Kyle [Lowry] probably a day later — or the day that I got traded and told him, I said let's go out and do something special. I know your best friend left, I know you're mad, but let's make this thing work out. And we are here today.”
“When he texted me it was a quick text and just showed the type of person he is,” Lowry said. “Willing to reach out, understanding that this situation was a little bit sensitive. But he knew that he felt something could be done special with our group.”
What Leonard wouldn’t do then and won’t do now is promise anything beyond what he gave on the court. For the Raptors, who are still celebrating with the parade scheduled for Monday, that was enough.
The only hint of controversy in his career came in his final season in San Antonio when he heard criticism even in his own locker room for not playing as he rehabbed a quadriceps injury. The Raptors took what they could get, preaching load management, and after missing 22 games during the regular season he played in every postseason game and will be healthy enough for the parade.
“Well, just the year, last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn't want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we're not playing this game, if we're hurt, I mean you're down. So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesn't matter what anybody has to say about me.
“I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus. And that's why one of the things that I take on the floor. I don't care about what the media has to say about me or if they want me to score or whatever, 30 points, because I did the game before, I'm going to come out and play the right way, I'm not trying to make headlines. And that's just things that I pretty much learned just throughout this journey of being in the NBA. So that's how I just keep growing up as a man and that's why I say, I just think about my past life and try to learn from situations and be wise and learn from others.”